Sawdust and Tinsel: Life of a Ringmaster

DESPERATELY THEY FOUGHT THE DESIRES, THE PASSIONS THAT DRAGGED THEM DOWN DEEPER AND DEEPER INTO THE NAKED NIGHT. 

Sawdust and Tinsel became the film that made the world discover Ingmar Bergman. This was his first great movie and its status is undisputed more than 60 years after its premiere. But the first people who saw the movie, the Swedish critics, did not all recognize a masterpiece; one of them even compared it to a vomit. Considering how arresting it is, one can’t help but wonder what they were smoking that must have made them fall asleep.

In turn-of-the-century Sweden, a circus troupe arrives in a small town. Albert Johansson (Åke Grönberg), the manager of Circus Alberti, dresses up along with his mistress Anne (Harriet Andersson) and goes to see the local theater manager to ask him a favor – the circus wishes to borrow outfits for a parade that Albert is planning. The theater manager (Gunnar Björnstrand) treats him with contempt, but agrees to do it. At the theater, Anne meets an actor (Hasse Ekman) who tries to woo her. She rejects him, but finds him attractive.

Albert goes to see the mother of his two children who all live in the town. He hasn’t seen them for years and tells Agda (Gudrun Brost), whom he’s still married to, that he wants to abandon the circus and create a new life together with her…

Perfect environ for a script
Bergman described this film as a ”broadside ballad”, a rich melodrama that he thought up while spending time in Stockholm in a hotel next to a theater where he could hear the actors eating and drinking after performances. Turns out this was the perfect environ for a script that pits the fancier tradition of theater versus the uglier form of traveling circus.

There’s a lot of fiery emotions on display here, resulting in an actual, climactic fistfight between Albert and Frans, the actor who’s wooing Albert’s mistress – but it’s also clear (as Björnstrand’s theater manager points out early in the film) that the art forms are simply two sides of a coin. That’s one fascinating aspect of the film that is essentially a study of a brutal man who wants to leave his old life behind, even though he will always be tethered to it. No matter how much noise he makes about it, threatening to end his life, he’s bound to stand there in the ring once again the following evening. A crucial theme here is humiliation, brilliantly symbolized by both Grönberg (funny and touching in his greatest role) as the circus manager, and Anders Ek as Frost the sad clown. In a crucial flashback scene we see him attempt to save his wife as well as his honor by struggling to get her out of the ocean – now there’s a walk to Golgotha if there ever was one. The humiliation is also obvious in the portrait of Albert’s mistress who can’t help being drawn to a bad man, the actor who more or less rapes her and offers a trinket as compensation.

The film certainly feels different from many contemporary Swedish movies; cinematographers Sven Nykvist and Hilding Bladh get us up close to the sweaty faces of the characters during the most intense moments of the drama, as well as offering us seductive views of the chaotic circus life as it settles down on a precipice in southern Sweden overlooking the ocean.

Sawdust and Tinsel wasn’t a huge hit in Sweden, but fans of Ingmar Bergman should have no problems recognizing what sets it apart from previous Bergman productions. The visual style and rural setting make you wonder if perhaps The Seventh Seal (1957) was just a stone’s throw away from the ideas Bergman had while listening to those actors at his hotel in Stockholm – it’s as if this film made him see the world in a grander (perhaps a bit more Italian?) way than his previous projects. 

Sawdust and Tinsel 1953-Sweden. 92 min. B/W. Produced by Rune Waldekranz. Written and directed by Ingmar Bergman. Cinematography: Sven Nykvist, Hilding Bladh. Cast: Åke Grönberg (Albert Johansson), Harriet Andersson (Anne), Hasse Ekman (Frans), Anders Ek, Gudrun Brost, Annika Tretow… Gunnar Björnstrand.

Trivia: Original title: Gycklarnas afton. Alternative title: The Naked Night.

Last word: “I wrote the film straight through from beginning to end, without stopping to think or add or fill in. The drama had its origin in a dream. I depicted the dream in the flashback about Frost and Alma […] To express it in musical terms, one could say the main theme is the episode with Frost and Alma. There follows, within an undivided time frame, a number of thematic variations of erotics and humiliation in ever-changing combination.” (Bergman, “Images: My Life in Film”)

 

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